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Slate's Politics: Primaries Point to November

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, a new show on Comedy Central, Dog Bites Man.

BRAND: But first, yesterday was man bites man. It was primary day in eight states and a potential bellwether for the issues that may be important to voters in November.

CHADWICK: Here in California, one of the most closely watched races was a special election in San Diego. This to fill the seat of the now imprisoned former Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham.

BRAND: For a look at that race and the big picture for November, John Dickerson is here. He's Chief Political Correspondent for the online magazine Slate. And John, let's first look at that Randy Cunningham seat. The GOP narrowly held onto it. What does it say?

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Chief Political Correspondent, Slate): Well, it says that the Republicans finally have some good news they can talk about. This was a Republican seat. It would have been a surprise if the Democrat Francine Busby had won, but the climate for Republicans nationally is horrible. The president's approval ratings are low. Congress' approval ratings are low. They've gotten a stream of sort of bad news and everybody's nervous.

So a win is a win, and so Republicans are very happy to have that win. And I think more broadly for them, what makes them feel good is that when they put a lot of effort into a race, as they did in this one - spending 4.5 million dollars and having the president make telephone calls - they can still win a race. And so that's some good news in an otherwise gloomy outlook.

BRAND: And even though they lost, Democrats are saying they won by getting such a close vote. Are they right there?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, the losing team always says that. Republicans said that last year when Virginia picked a Democrat governor. They always have to come up with some rationale. And so Democrats have a very long explanation about why it's still good for them. Yes, a Democrat did well or better in that seat than they probably should have, given historical trends, but the fact is the Republicans won.

And it means in the November elections there is still a chance for those Republicans, who've been really down in the dumps, that if they work hard enough and if they throw enough money at these races, there's a chance they can still pull off a victory and retain control of the House and Senate.

CHADWICK: Hey, speaking of throwing money. In Montana, incumbent GOP Senator Conrad Burns won his primary, even though he has been linked with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. So maybe the lobbying scandal isn't such a scandal. Maybe it's not going to matter that much.

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, that appears to be right. There are two questions on the lobbying scandal: Is it a problem against Democrats? And does it depress your Republican base? In that California race we were just talking about, Francine Busby tried to use the, quote, "culture of corruption" against her opponent Brian Bilbray, and that didn't seem to work.

And then in Montana, as you say, Conrad Burns, who's had a lot of speculation swirling around him, won with 72 percent of the vote in his primary. And so that didn't seem to hurt him. Well, that's one of the pillars of the Democratic attack against Republican candidates and they've got to be disappointed that it didn't work in those two races.

CHADWICK: How about the Alabama primary, incumbent Governor Bob Riley winning handily over a well-known challenger, the former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. He was known as the Ten Commandments judge, because he wanted them in his courtroom, and then he wanted to be governor.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's right. I'm not sure there's any great significance of that, although it does prove some of the old saw, which is that incumbents tend to hold onto to their jobs. And that in local races those kinds of hot button issues - Roy Moore was a darling of social conservatives - only can take you so far. And he got trounced by Riley. And sort of the old fashioned political rules kind of worked out for the incumbent in that case.

BRAND: And, John, what do you see of any overall themes that you can parse out from yesterday's elections for the November election, in terms of the issues that voters really care about?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, it's always dangerous to try and draw these overall themes, because we're always, or almost - invariably we're wrong. But there are two things here that seem possible. Republicans, as I've said before, who've been down in the dumps, now have a little good news. Off-year elections are about having your team, your base, turn out, and you need them to be excited and motivated. And this helps in that regard.

The second point is that Brian Bilbray, the winner of the San Diego race, essentially stood firm on a border security platform that is at odds with President Bush's position on immigration reform. Any House candidate running -and, of course, they're all running - but any House Republican thinking about moderating their position on immigration was not given a reason to by Brian Bilbray's victory.

And the people I talked to on the Hill today said that those Republicans who believe in sort of an enforcement only approach, who don't want to compromise with the more moderate Senate bill, are probably going to stick to their position.

BRAND: Thank you, John.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from John Dickerson. He's Chief Political Correspondent for the online magazine Slate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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